By Dayan Jayatilleka –
A country usually rolls out the red carpet for a visiting foreign dignitary but can a country turn into a carpet? Well, ours just did. We live in a time and a country in which a visiting celebrity from India can think nothing of openly criticizing and cautioning us against our old friend China while speaking at the launch of a biography of Sri Lankan Prime Minister, with the said PM and the President in the audience.
“Congress MP and former Union Minister Shashi Tharoor on Wednesday flagged India’s concerns over China’s presence in Sri Lanka, pointing to “military intervention in the guise of trade” even in the earlier avatar of China’s Silk Road initiative. He was speaking at the launch of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s political biography, authored by Dinesh Weerakody.
Referring to Chinese admiral Zheng He’s explorations in the 15th century, Mr. Tharoor said they were not just initiatives to promote trade, but also “direct military intervention under the pretext of ushering in a harmonious world order under China’s emperor”.
Some in India wondered whether China’s interest in the Indian Ocean Region undermines India’s own historical links and cultural networks built over generations and centuries, said the former Minister of State for External Affairs echoing South Block’s apparent preoccupation with Beijing’s growing presence in the region.”
Now this is suffused with unintended irony. The ancient chronicles of the largest community on this island one of the oldest nations in the world, are marked by references to military interventions from and occupations by India with the scantest reference to aggression from China. Determined doubtless by geopolitics, recent Sri Lankan memory also contains an episode of sponsorship of cross-border separatist terrorism capped by coercive intervention, while the only memories of China are those of consistent, unambiguous support in our thirty years war against separatist terrorism.
Shashi Tharoor’s gratuitous references to China while in a third country addressing an audience which contained the leaders of that country on the occasion of the launch of a biography of its PM, is a perfect example of the problems that India’s neighbors have with her overbearing arrogance and presumption. The speech was also on the eve of a visit by a top Chinese personality and in the midst of the Govt of Sri Lanka’s negotiations on Hambantota with China.
No such thing ever happened before in my lifetime and never could have, and I cannot think of any other country in which it could. By contrast, no leading Chinese personality has made any such speech criticizing India or any other country by name and cautioning Sri Lanka against it–and on so formal an occasion. That’s who we are and where we are at today under Ranil-Mangala-CBK Chinthana: less than a whore who has to take crap from every passing customer.
None of this means that Hambantota is a good deal, but whose fault is that? China’s? Mahinda Rajapaksa’s? Hardly. The Chinese ambassador told a few of us at the Pakistani National Day reception that he had placed on public record that China does not need more than 51% of the Hambantota project. When questioned by us as to why then the stated the percentage of control has risen, he disclosed that it was certain ranking elements in the Government of Sri Lanka who had urged China to take a higher share! I promptly checked with two Ministers, one UNP the other SLFP, at the reception and found that the information was correct and furthermore, that there was a better option to earn revenue (renting the land at US $ 50,000 per hectare per month) that had been presented to the cabinet subcommittee, but had been ignored in favor of asking China to take a higher percentage of ownership.
Is all this OK by you? Because it isn’t by me. Trust the French to put their conceptual finger on it. It is they who put a focus on the phenomenon of “mentality” in politics, by which they meant collective mentalities or what we have translated as “mindsets”. That too is an extension of what the Ancient Greeks called the “psyche”.
Our attitudes determine where we stand in politics. Those attitudes stem from our mentalities. The simplest way in which I can sum it up is to resort to one of my father’s wisecracks, which may or may not have been original. He used to say “you’d like the guy, if that’s the kind of guy you like”. One could substitute girl, book, movie, whatever noun.
Let’s start with the UNP. Two Sundays back on March 30th, 200 corporate executives paid for a one day Economic Forum organized by Sri Lanka Inc. at the Galle Face Hotel. Minister Kabir Hashim was the chief guest. At one point in the proceedings a chairperson of a session asked for a show of hands of those who thought that Sri Lanka was “on the right track”. Not a single hand went up! The slightly bemused and slightly flustered chairperson asked again, trying to coax the young corporate audience, which included the not-so-young owners of two top business empires, into a show of hands. Once again not a single hand was raised.
If that’s the confidence and support a corporate audience displays towards the UNP’s economic performance almost halfway into the government’s first term, having listened to a rousing economic policy declaration from the intelligent, personable Minister Kabir Hashim, then I could imagine what the citizenry at large feels.
The UNP leader and PM’s agenda was laid out in his interview with veteran journalist and author Padma Rao of WION:
“…We are working on [an agreement] that will also lay the basis for a closer relationship between Sri Lanka and the economies of the five southern Indian states… The Chinese have indicated interest in taking some of the land themselves. But just outside that area, there is another very good block of land – closer to Galle than Hambantota. It is fully developed. We want to work on that together with the Andhra Pradesh Industrial Infrastructure Corporation. Then, there’s more land in our north-western province. We are talking to Surbana Jarong on building an industrial estate there. Even Thais have come and looked at it… We are developing Trincomalee port and we’d like India to participate and take a project or two there. We would also like Japan to do so. Even India is discussing an industrial estate in Sri Lanka… So, we can engage whomsoever we want, to plan Trincomalee and we happen to have engaged one that is also planning out in Andhra Pradesh. As far as the Indian Free Trade Zone is concerned, yes. We have said we welcome India. And once India’s areas are allocated and they are ready, we would like to have a free trade zone…Indian Oil Corporation is currently looking at the feasibility of a refinery to be run jointly with the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC)…” (https://www.wionews.com/south-asia/wion-global-leadership-series-ties-with-china-not-at-indias-expense-says-sri-lanka-pm-ranil-wickremesinghe-14074)
The PM seriously wishes to tie up this country with five Southern Indian states including a hostile Tamil Nadu which has been in solidarity with the separate state project for decades. He wishes sell off chunks of this small island to all comers, and throw in a crucial strategic area to India, our massive neighbor which houses Tamil Nadu and given history and geography is a potential threat to us.
Thus, the PM plans not only to Indianize and Tamil Nadu-ize Sri Lanka’s economy, but also to sell off or give on long lease, swathes of a small island thereby effectively shrinking Sri Lanka as a sovereign state. The PM’s polices are a geopolitical and existential threat to the nation. Despite this, President Sirisena and ex-president CBK want their audiences – and us in general– to regard Mahinda Rajapaksa and his “splittist” loyalists as the main enemy, while one of ex-President Rajapaksa’s brothers want us to regard President Sirisena and his SLFP faction as the main threat and target!
There are other, far more powerful factors determining the course of events. The first is the global economic crisis which Prof Howard Nicholas explained to the audience at the Economic Forum, will be deeper than that of 2008 and will definitely impact on Sri Lanka. I endorsed his perspective, citing ‘The Fourth Turning’, by Howe and Strauss, the book that has had the greatest influence on Steve Bannon the chief strategist and ideologue of President Trump who is known even among his bitter opponents as “one of the best read personalities in Washington DC”. ‘The Fourth Turning’ says we are in a deep crisis which commenced in 2008, will climax in 2020, may involve revolution and total war, and will culminate in a new model and a new civic ethic of coherence and community by 2023-2025.
The second factor is the global zeitgeist of populist nationalism of Right and Left which is undermining the liberal world order. Prof Nicholas pointed to a “national capitalism” as the only model to strive for in the face of this crisis; asserting that a national capitalism is what has succeeded in East Asia and particularly in China and Vietnam (where he teaches). He concluded by asking “where are the nationalists? Where is the nationalism among the academics and entrepreneurs?”
The truth is that the opposition space is divided between those who regard Ranil as the main enemy, and those who regard Sirisena as the main enemy. Further shades of opinion are those who regard Ranil AND Sirisena as indistinguishable or two sides of the same coin and therefore as the joint “main enemy”, and those who refuse to buy into this. A variation is those who regard the UNP (not simply the Ranil clique) as the main enemy and those who regard the official SLFP as the main enemy.
Within the broad Opposition space, who regards Ranil rather than Sirisena as the main enemy? The JVP is divided, the FSP is silent on such political issues. The key political personality in the Opposition, Mahinda Rajapaksa is agnostic and a pragmatic balancer. That leaves the JO –and one significant “outlier”. In the main, the JO, as distinct from the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), is anti-Ranil rather than anti-MS. But so also is the Gotabhaya camp and GR himself. In typically Sri Lankan fashion though, these two tendencies, the JO and GR are not excessively fond of or close to each other. But the country’s dynamics and the reality of the presidential election and candidacy of 2019 may effect a convergence, not least because GR is perhaps the only personality who could draw both wings of the SLFP together while breaking into the UNP vote base and enthusing the middle class swing vote.
The JO may prefer Chamal Rajapaksa to play that role and he would be a credible choice at any other time, but the deepening national crisis and the reaction to Ranil’s policies and profile would inevitably lead to an irresistible public opinion push for a stronger, more decisive figure in the heroic mold.
The main contradiction which will drive events in Sri Lanka is not between the voters and Mahinda Rajapaksa or Maithripala Sirisena but precisely between the “people-nation” (as Antonio Gramsci put it) and the warped, outdated, decadent, globally besieged economic model sought to be implemented by Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. The winner will be the project and personality that (a) stand at the interface of the global economic crisis and the rise of populist nationalism, (b) stand against the neoliberal elitist establishment and (c) stand for a strong patriotic state plus East Asian model ‘national capitalism’.
If the government continues to go the way of Russia in the disastrous pro-Western liberal 1990s, with President Sirisena paying Mikhail Gorbachev and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe playing Boris Yeltsin, then the beneficiary of the inevitable swing will be not so much a Donald Trump as a Vladimir Putin.